Thursday, May 31, 2007

spirituality defined

there are more things in heaven and earth than are ever dreamt of in your philosophy, Horrie [Hamlet's advice to a materialist mate after chatting with his dad's ghost]

I've come up with a neat definition of spirituality for the spiritually inclined, which I think captures much of the yearning, the confusion and the consolation.
To be spiritual is to believe that there is more to this world than this world, and to know that by believing this you're a better person than those who don't believe it.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

reflections on orthodoxy - 1

literacy - keeps them on the same page

To get away from the polemical side for a bit, let me explore the psychology of religious orthodoxy via the penultimate chapter in Boyer’s Religion Explained, entitled ‘Why doctrines, exclusion and violence?’

This chapter starts more provocatively than it needs to, methinks, and it sets up a challenge that Boyer doesn’t really rise to:

Here is a simple scenario: People in a group tend to have a similar description of supernatural agents, a local doctrine of what gods or spirits are up to. The very fact that people in a group share this religious ideology and perform important rituals together sharpens their perception that they are indeed a group with clearly marked boundaries. Worshiping the same god creates a community and by implication gives that extra edge to the feeling that people with different gods or spirits really are potential enemies. Indeed, people who become deeply involved in religion, for whom it is a matter of vital importance that their doctrine is the only source of truth, will not hesitate to massacre the one who seem not to acknowledge this obvious fact or whose commitment is too lukewarm. The most heinous crimes will be a celebration of the True Faith. This is how gods and spirits lead to group cohesion, which leads to xenophobia, which leads to fanatical hatred.

Practically everything in this scenario is misguided.

Boyer often uses this device, and it becomes a bit irritating. Needless to say, he doesn’t convincingly demonstrate the misguidedness of this scenario. What he does, in the thirty pages that follow, is fill out its details, providing plenty of counter-examples along the way. But these counter-examples come from tribal religions, not the big, politicized religions, the fascist monotheisms as Onfray calls them, and these are the ones we’re largely concerned about.

Still, it’s true enough that in some parts of the world there are beliefs in spirits and ancestors without any systematic religion at all, while in other parts, such as in Java, people practice a number of different religions at the same time, without necessarily feeling a sense of confusion about them. It’s the growth of religious specialists, argues Boyer, that creates fault lines between different religions and denominations.

The recognition of specialists within a religious tradition starts out in an ad hoc fashion. Reputations develop [often in ambiguous terms – the shaman may be a witch or evil spirit in disguise] and certain skills or orientations are handed down from parents to kids. With growing recognition comes an increasing division of labour, an increasing specialization.

Rituals become more standardized, and the specialists come to be practitioners of a particular skill, of sorts, rather than just someone wise in the ways of the spirits. What’s more, they become the molders of doctrine and orthodoxy [think of Paul of Tarsus and Augustine of Hippo]. Boyer claims that ‘doctrines are the way they are because of the organization of religious institutions, not the other way around’. When Paul was around there wasn’t much of a religious institution to speak of, and of course his writings had an impact in shaping future doctrine.

Of course, such an influence implies literacy. With literacy, orthodoxy and doctrine can be codified. It’s to be noted that often the specialists were the only people who were literate, and it’s no accident that masses were delivered in Latin and only initiates were permitted to read the Bible in the early days. Boyer describes this in terms of a guild mentality.

I’ll look into this further next time.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

touching on the recent history of the HRCAC

bloody drowning, not waving

I was hardly surprised to find the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church getting a hammering from Michel Onfray in his Atheist Manifesto, but I was intrigued by some specific twentieth century allegations, which I’m inclined to investigate further. The first allegation I knew a little about – the connection between the papacy and Nazism. The second allegation, about the part played by Catholic priests in the Rwandan massacre of the nineties, was completely new to me.

On the first issue, Onfray points out that the Vatican admired Hitler [the feeling was mutual] because they pinpointed the same enemies – Jews and Communists. The Vatican never censored the increasing militarism of Nazi Germany, and certainly didn’t protest against its increasingly anti-semitic policies. It supported and aided the pro-Nazi Ustachi regime in Croatia, and the collaborationist Vichy regime in France, and did nothing to protest the extermination policies pursued from 1942, though it knew full well about them. In 1945, the German Cardinal Bertram infamously ordered a requiem mass for Hitler’s soul, that he might enter paradise. No comment was made upon the victims of Auschwitz. After the war, the Vatican set up a network to smuggle Nazi war criminals out of Europe.

The Church’s role in committing or abetting mass murders in Croatia and elsewhere is also highlighted in a book by Daniel Goldhagen, A Moral Reckoning. Other books dealing with these issues include Constantine’s Sword, by James Carroll, and Papal Sins, by Garry Wills.

As to the Rwandan massacre, I feel a bit sheepish for knowing nothing about this. In one high-profile case, a Father Seromba was put on trial [though he has refused to appear] at the UN War Crimes Tribunal in Tanzania, accused of helping to orchestrate a mass-killing of 2000 Tutsis seeking refuge in his own parish church.

While nobody is accusing the Vatican of being responsible for this and other Rwandan atrocities, Onfray’s point is that, as with the sexual abuse problem in the priesthood, the Vatican’s first instinct is to protect its own and only later, if at all, to consider the victims. Also, the Church has refused to accept any responsibility for the actions of individual priests. Whether or not this is a justifiable position is the big question.

And another little point. As reported here, recently the Catholic church called for the abolition of the death penalty in Rwanda. This was after twenty-two Catholic clergy were given death sentences for their involvement in the Rwandan killings. The Vatican had never called for the abolition of the death penalty in Rwanda before. Ain't life strange.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

impressions of augustine

this black bastard is to blame for everything

I’ve started reading the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo, supposedly a saint. Given to me as a Christmas present by a Christian who knows I’m not a believer. One tiny instance of an attitude common to all religious types: they can’t and won’t leave well enough alone. Useless is it, ultimately, to say that we don’t mind what absurdities these people believe in as long as they don’t foist it upon others. It’s their mission to do so – the missionary position.

I’ve read much of Augustine’s Confessions before. Needless to say, I found them far less enlightening and entertaining than Rousseau’s Confessions, but they had a human element beneath the depressing maundering about sin. The introduction to my edition, written by a Roman Catholic named R S Pine-Coffin [wonderful indication of the death instinct tendencies of that religion], starts very unpromisingly: The life of Saint Augustine has a special appeal because he was a great sinner who became a great saint…

What a world of unexamined Judeo-Christian assumptions lies behind these words. He goes on to say that Augustine, by his own admission, lived a life of sin until the age of thirty-two [not that he’s comparing himself to Jesus, he’s far too umble for that], which presumably means he led an ordinary life, until he discovered the benefits of saintliness and submission to the almighty, and all that this entails, that’s to say, hatred of the body, hatred of freedom, hatred of knowledge, hatred of progress, hatred of difference, hatred of life itself. The philosopher Michel Onfray has a somewhat different take on Augustine:

Augustine, a saint by trade, dedicated all his talent to justifying the worst in the church: slavery, war, capital punishment, etc. Blessed are the meek? The peacemakers? Augustine is no more enthusiastic than Hitler about this side of Christianity, too soft, not virile or warlike enough, squeamish about bloodshed – the feminine face of religion. He offered the church the concepts it lacked to justify punitive expeditions and massacres. These things the Jews had practiced to acquire their land, on a limited geographical scale, but the Christians drew from that local action inspiration for action across the face of the globe, for their goal was converting the world itself. The chosen people generated catastrophes that were first of all local. Universal Christianity created universal upheavals. Once it triumphed, every continent became a battlefield.

With the church’s blessing, Augustine, bishop of Hippo, sanctioned just persecution in a letter. A choice formulation, which he presents in contrast to unjust persecution! What differentiates the good corpse from the bad? Flaying of victims – when is it defensible and when is it indefensible? All persecution by the church was good, because motivated by love; while persecution directed against the church was indefensible, because inspired by cruelty. We should relish the rhetoric and talent for sophistry of Saint Augustine, who preferred his Jesus to brandish the whip and not to suffer at the hands of the Roman soldiery.

A long quotation, but necessary for us to get a sense of the man we’re dealing with, a man described elsewhere as a poster boy for religious intolerance. Onfray is scathing but accurate.

Meanwhile, our Pine-Coffin continues the hagiographic intro. After describing the irrational beliefs of the Manichees, with whom Augustine was a fellow-traveller for ten years, he remarks ‘It seems incredible that a man of Saint Augustine’s intellectual caliber could have been taken in by these fantastic theories…’. As Pascal Boyer points out in Religion Explained, secularists are continually dumbfounded by this incredulity displayed by the follower of one bizarre cult – and there are surely few more bizarre than Roman Catholicism – towards the follower of another.

poor Pelagius - victim of just persecution

In fact it’s not unreasonable to say that Augustine held out against a more reasoned, and humane, approach to Christianity in a lifetime of writing, creating a future orthodoxy out of his own cruel, self-hating preoccupations. Try this interesting and quite informative article about Augustine and Zorastrianism, Islam and totalitarianism, which dovetails nicely with Onfray’s conclusions about the fascist nature of the great monotheisms.

Pine-Coffin puts it almost gently – ‘Besides his pastoral work Augustine was a powerful adversary of all heretics and enemies of the church.’ Such a noble fellow. No mention of the ideas of these adversaries; Pelagius, at first glance a rather more humane fellow than Augustine, with a clearer and more empirical vision of human need and striving, believed that ‘grace’ could be attained outside the structures and dogmas of the Church, simply by living a Christ-like existence [he also apparently saw through Augustine’s doctrine as unregenerate Manicheism]; Donatus, who believed that if the sacraments were performed by a great sinner they would be invalid or wouldn’t work [seems reasonable to me, and the reasons given for why these ideas are ‘errors’, according to Catholic apologists, are hilarious in their tortuous rationalizations]; the Apollinarians, who held the view that Jesus wasn’t ‘really’ human, but just God poured out in human form [we all know, of course, that Jesus is ‘really’ both human and divine]; and so on. As he grew older, Augustine became more and more enamoured of the idea of using state powers to persecute these nasties [it must be remembered that Christianity became the state religion, under Theodosius, only in Augustine’s lifetime]. He set the rules for religious persecution over the next millennium or more.

Now, after all that, should I go on reading his Confessions?


Sunday, May 20, 2007


this picture not taken in russia

I’ve heard that reading, and personal libraries, once status symbols in old USSR days, are no longer fashionable in the new Russia.

I’ve heard that there may be something for La Luna to exploit out of the environmental funding in the recent Federal budget. I’ll be looking into that more closely soon.

I’ve read that the second, third and fourth Presidents of the USA may have been atheists, or at the very least non-Christian deists, a la Thomas Paine. The first and fifth Presidents too perhaps. It should be noted that these five – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, were all among that country’s finest leaders. How have the mighty fallen.

Jefferson -liked Jesus sans miracles

I heard that the only economies in the world that aren’t growing at present are those of East Timor and Zimbabwe. No doubt an exaggeration, but it nicely contextualizes the supposed economic credentials of the incumbents [I mean the Howard government for my international readers hoho] come election time.

I’ve read a review of Hitchens’ anti-religion book by Jack Miles, whose own book on God [that’s the Judeo-Christian one] so intrigued me last year. Miles, a professor of English and religious studies and apparently a liberal Christian, is only mildly critical, admonishing Hitchens largely for being overly polemical and insufficiently substantive. However, he makes an initial, somewhat gloating point I must take issue with:

The atheist alternative has been around from the beginning, after all. How dispiriting it must be for the neo-atheist pamphleteer to pick up "The Cambridge Companion to Atheism" and read even Chapter 1, "Atheism in Antiquity."

The answer is that it isn’t at all dispiriting, because the fact is – and the evidence for this is overwhelming – that atheism was almost never used before the eighteenth century except as a term of abuse. Before the Enlightenment, the term and its variants [infidel being the most common] were used to demonise those who either weren’t members of the critic’s religion or didn’t toe the orthodox line within that religion. Most condemned and persecuted ‘atheists’ were far from being atheists at all, and positive atheism is a very recent vintage indeed.

I’ve read that Paul of Tarsus, about whom opinion is so vastly varied, was a masochistic, misogynistic anti-intellectual and thanatophiliac, and that Christianity’s spread, under the noses of authorities, was largely due to its grassroots anti-intellectual formatting by Paul, who advised his uneducated followers to kowtow to local authorities. Not considered much of a threat, it spread as a message of hope [in the next world of course] among the numberless disenfranchised peoples of the Roman Empire. When Constantine came to power, he considered it expedient to convert, to please the ranks of poor Christians in his armies, and from that day forward the real repression began, of intellectual pagans in the name of the saviour god of the rabble. Shades of Pol Pot, the Bolshies and so many other revolutions.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

the bandwagon accelerates

keep em coming

I remember I was going to start each post with a quote, so here's one from G J Holyoake from a text written in 1861:

If we cannot tell the history of a single stone, who shall tell the history of God? If a poor pebble is a surpassing mystery, who shall understand the Deity? What must be the pretension, the presumption to infinite capacity of that man who, pausing not in reverent humility in the presence of these myriad miracles which crowd before him, yet tells us in confident and dogmatic tones, that he 'Looks through Nature up to Nature's God?'

I heard the other day that Christopher Hitchens has joined the bandwagon with a stinging polemic against religion. Not being a huge fan of Hitchens’ style, I may not look at it, but then again maybe I will. The title of his book, God is not great: how religion poisons everything, gives an indication of his sympathies I think.

So we can add another to the list of heavies who have chosen to pursue an uncompromising line, in a very public way. There’s a very definite trend happening here: the polemical but historically informed writings of A C Grayling, the polemical but scientifically informed writings of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, Michel Onfray’s Traite d’Athéologie [translated as The Atheist Manifesto], and various other texts have been selling very well in recent years. Possibly it’s a reaction to international political events and ‘the clash of cultures’ which implicates the two most influential monotheistic belief systems on the planet. The repressive atmosphere of the soi-disant ‘war against terror’ has created an inevitable reaction. Atheists everywhere are being encouraged by current trends to put aside their masks of politeness and sweet reasonableness and to strike out for the principles of enlightenment. After all, the best arguments, historical, scientific and psychological, are on our side, and there’s a great deal at stake, for, since the enlightenment, religion has been sharply in retreat, especially in western Europe, but the recent dominance of the USA [in particular its religious right] and the rousing of the Islamic nations against it threaten to destroy the great gains of secularism.

So may the bandwagon roll on and gather momentum. However, I would naturally like to see a more analytical approach, and less repeated attacks on the softest targets and the flakiest extremes.

It’s probably true that my own voice has been raised a little louder in criticism of religion, and particularly Christianity, in recent years, and I’m constantly willing myself to speak out against religious complacency, not to let it ride. This has led to the occasional uncomfortable scene, and recently someone close to me suggested that I was being intolerant, possibly even bigoted in my stridency.

This annoys me, because I don’t think this person, who has read The God Delusion and some of Grayling’s writings, would describe Dawkins or Grayling, or Nietzsche for that matter, as bigots. Many of my own views are simply in tune with those writers, vis-à-vis religion, and I share some of their justified ire. Possibly the problem is that abstract, intellectual attacks are one thing, but those involving real flesh and blood people are another. Yet in the end it must come down to this – particular battles, intellectual or otherwise, with particular people.

Having said that, I’ve never yet told anyone directly that their religion sucks, though I’ve often been tempted. The unfortunate thing is that, with some people, to say anything, to challenge in any way at all, is to say too much. Harmony is preferable to honesty. It’s an old liberal conundrum, as applicable to multicultural nations as it is to blended families.

Ultimately, though, the best arguments against religions will come in action rather than words. The well-regulated and thriving secular state, the knowledge and power derived from scientific activity, the sheer joy of sex, the thrill of artistic creation, all these things testify, in their various ways to the dead hand of religion and its attempt to deny the exhilarations and tragedies of fully realized and real humanity.


Monday, May 07, 2007

Adelaide the solar city

we want sliver cell panels

A federal Government media release on August 30 last year announced that Adelaide had been selected to host Australia’s first solar city trial. To quote from the release:

The Adelaide Solar City proposal will install solar panels in more than 1700 homes in north Adelaide, roll out 7000 smart meters and help people save around $200 a year on their electricity bills by changing energy use and adapting energy efficiency measures. The solar panels will be made in Australia by BP Solar at their Homebush plant in Sydney and the SLIVER ® cell technology will come from Origin Energy's Adelaide plant. Consumers will be able to purchase these solar panels using special discounted loans.

Apparently this proposal involves a consortium of businesses and local councils. The businesses include Origin Energy, BP solar, Delfin, ANZ and Big Switch. The councils involved are Adelaide, Playford, Tea Tree Gully and Salisbury. Unfortunately none of La Luna’s houses are in these council areas. Whether the discounted loans are available to house owners/managers outside those council areas is unclear. Presumably not. The period of the proposal is seven years, to 2013.

The Origin Energy site also provides some useful pricing on solar. They offer a hot water ‘solarise’ package for $2175 including all rebates and GST. A total home solarisation makeover can be done for $9875. Bearing this in mind, La Luna could provide solar hot water to all our homes over, say, a three year period, starting now. However, there’s another important issue to be considered, and that is the quality of the solar panels. Currently, we’re told, the cheap solar panels – presumably the ones being offered in this package, have a life-span of only ten years. If this is true, ongoing costs will prove to be a problem. The panels being sold as a part of this package come with a ten-year warranty, but the Office of Community Housing, who allowed us solar hot water on our Wilkins Street properties, built a couple of years ago, weren’t going to allow us the same thing on our yet-to-be built Klemzig properties, apparently because they felt that it wasn’t cost-efficient due to the short lifetimes of the panels. We’ve managed to do a deal, however, purchasing solar panels at the expense of floor coverings.

Most of our current homes use gas to heat their water, so the monetary and greenhouse savings would be less than would be the case with electrically heated water. If there are any electrically heated water supplies, I’d suggest they would be our top priority for conversion. We’d also have to look at it from the point of view of the property as a whole – whether we would consider that property to be a permanent part of our portfolio.

There are some questions we wouldn’t mind answers to. First, if we install solar hot water systems, would they be a step toward full solarisation, or would they have to be dismantled and replaced? Second, what kind of PV technology is used in these panels, and are there better more long-lasting systems commercially available [the commercialization of sliver technology still seems to be away into the future], and what about rebates on them? Also, from the Solar Cities perspective, how can La Luna get in on the act?


Friday, May 04, 2007

Bacon [some remarks on The Advancement of Learning, Book One]

a real hero

Having finished the first book of Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, I feel pleasantly surprised at how modern it is in places, though much of it, unsurprisingly, is entangled in religion, the religion that was tearing Britain and Europe apart and that would continue to do so throughout the seventeenth century, with the civil war in England and the Thirty Years war on the continent. Yet in spite of all the persecution and intolerance other forces were on the move, forces that would most certainly have gained Bacon’s support, forces indeed that he helped to shape and strengthen – the forces of the British enlightenment, when, as Ian McEwen wrote in his novel Saturday, a few clever, curious men held in their minds nearly all the world’s science.

Book One, published in 1605, is a paean to the joy and benefits of learning. It can still inspire today, though it also expends much effort in cautioning us against the fruitlessness of certain sorts of speculation. It’s a first groping towards an adequate scientific methodology. Bacon naturally acts as a bridge between classical thought and modern science; his accounts of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar are more in the style of Plutarch than of Bacon’s contemporaries, and they’re the most engrossing sections of the text, having all the timelessness of good gossip. The non-narrative parts of the text employ difficult and now out-dated language [alongside strikingly modern passages], and are clogged with untranslated Latin quotations from the likes of Virgil, Lucretius, Seneca and Livy – testament to Bacon’s erudition if nothing else. The overly fulsome praise of James I and even of his predecessor Elizabeth reads uncomfortably to a modern, even considering Elizabeth’s deserved reputation, yet it’s clear that Bacon is far more than a fawning courtier. Though his criticisms are broad, they’re often incisive, and he doesn’t spare the clergy, especially those who prefer a particular soi-disant sacred text to ‘the book of nature’ which he describes, no doubt sincerely, as God’s book. It’s a criticism that can be fairly leveled at many a Southern Baptist today. At the beginning of Book One he quotes some notoriously ant-intellectual Bible passages, Ecclesiastes 12:12 – of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh, Ecclesiastes 1:18 – For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow, and also the remark of Paul in Corinthians 8:1 – knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth [as if it was a case of either/or]. These passages, he points out, as well as the claim that the yearning for knowledge produced the fall and was in a sense the original sin, have encouraged clerics to reduce the importance of knowledge and to associate it with heresy and even atheism [crime of all crimes]. Bacon’s response is complex and perhaps a little anxious. Naturally he makes his own selection and interpretation of scripture to back his case, in time-honoured fashion.

I note that Bacon actually wrote an essay on atheism, which I’ll report on soon. It may well have been this essay that first popularized the term in the modern sense.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

solar - the larger picture

concentrator photovoltaic technology in Central Australia

The most recent issue of Cosmos carries an article on solar technologies, a subject of some interest for La Luna Housing Co-op, a co-op that is looking into enviro-friendly technologies, small and large, for our properties.

Sales of solar panels have soared in recent years, what with global warming concerns and oil price rises and the rising cost of electricity. The increase in sales is also most definitely tied to subsidies. Government interest has meant a greater mainstreaming of the technology. As Cosmos points out, the grid-connected market today accounts for some 83% of solar sales. The Japanese and German governments have led the way in this area, but many other countries, and powerful not-quite-countries such as California, are hurrying to catch up. These subsidies, together with increasing taxation of emissions from the traditional fossil fuel industry, not to mention increasing extraction and other costs, have made solar technology much more competitive, and double-digit growth is predicted for the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, though, the real cost of manufacturing solar panels has increased significantly in recent times, largely because of a shortage of silicon. The shortage has meant that the price of the raw material has risen by almost a factor of 6. Boosting production of the purified silicon involves a great deal of expense.

So, can photovoltaic cells be manufactured without silicon, or with much less silicon? This is where Australian research is coming to the fore. The sliver cell panel, which uses micro-machined slivers of silicon instead of the traditional silicon wafers, was developed at the Centre for Sustainable Energy at the ANU. A square metre of such slivers will do the job of a 15cm wafer. Another Australian innovation is CSG – crystalline silicon on glass. This is an enhancement of wafer technology which requires 99% less silicon. The technology has been driven offshore due to lack of reliable funding and support. Australia’s government occasionally tries to get in on the act with rhetoric about solar cities, but there’s been little substantial funding for Australia’s solar pioneers, when compared with the funding of solar technology in Europe, particularly in Germany. This has meant that graduates in photovoltaic systems as well as the technologies they develop are being forced out of the country.

Along with photovoltaic panel technology there is a technology called concentrator technology which has been gaining lots of attention lately. The name provides the idea: rather than broad panels which trap as much of the sun’s generous spread of energy as possible, concentrator approaches direct the resource in much the same way as a lens, to create a powerful beam. In fact the latest developments have employed both beams and panels to provide power to remote Aboriginal communities, with curved-mirror tracking dishes concentrating light by 500 times and reflecting it onto specially insulated solar panels, and more ambitious systems are currently being built in regional Victoria. Meanwhile efforts are under way in California to reduce the cost of silicon manufacture substantially. Solar technology is getting hotter all the time at the moment.


pavlov's cat